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Researcher shares tips on helping struggling writers succeed

November 26, 2020

Educators and parents can help children get off to a strong start on learning to write.

Their potential influence was highlighted during an online Let’s Talk Education Community Speaker series event. Professor Perry Klein emphasized how a combination of teaching children strategies for writing, teaching printing or cursive writing, and teaching spelling can help struggling students improve their written communication.

Klein talked about his recent research with the London District Catholic School Board, which was one of the first experimental studies on teaching writing strategies to Grade 1 writers. Teachers taught students a six-step strategy for creating a story, in which students established a setting, created a beginning, middle and end, and wrote their feeling or thoughts about what happened. Students also learned to set goals for writing, check their story, cope with writing problems, and reinforce themselves for helpful writing behaviours.

Focusing on printing and/or cursive writing is also important to help beginning writers, said Klein. He stressed that eighty studies, which looked at kindergarten to grade 12 students, have shown that writing fluency, text length and the quality of students’ writing improves when printing or cursive writing are taught.

What’s more, teaching spelling to beginning writers is also important. Klein said an additional 53 studies show that explicit, systematic teaching of spelling helps students improve their writing skills. Explicit, systematic teaching of spelling, using methods like spelling lists and formal lessons and activities, helps children spell more accurately in written composition because students remember most of the words taught.

During the presentation, Klein stressed that effective writing education is based on evidence. These studies used control groups, and students’ writing was assessed before – and after – a new teaching method was introduced.

A key message was that effective teaching methods can reduce the gap between struggling writers and other students. Klein highlighted his team’s research work with the London District Catholic School Board. His team found that child-friendly, explicit, systematic teaching of a writing strategy led to statistically significant, large gains for students whose writing was in the lower third of the class at the beginning of the study.   

“If we use highly effective evidence-based methods, it tends to decrease the gap between lower achieving kids and middle and higher achieving kids in the class,” said Klein.

Recently, writing researchers have turned their attention to early intervention. In the past, students often received intervention for literacy problems only after they were diagnosed with a learning disability. These diagnoses usually happened part way through elementary school. As a result, most writing intervention research focused on students in Grades 4 and up.  However, it’s been the success of early assessment and intervention for reading that has shifted the focus to early assessment and intervention in writing, said Klein.  

There are many reasons why children struggle with writing, said Klein. Some of them include: a learning disability in reading, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), developmental language disorder, emotional and behavioural disorder or a lack of experience with literacy outside of school. He added research indicates that school closures due to COVID have also affected learning, which probably includes students’ progress in writing. 

Let’s Talk Education is a free event open to the general public. Speakers share their research at Western Education to facilitate discussion around important topics in education.